College Board gives details of first AP African American studies class

On the opening day of Black History Month, the College Board made history Wednesday by releasing details of its first Advanced Placement course on African American Studies for high school students — a course that drew national attention after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis , had banned him in his state saying he is pushing a political agenda.

The curriculum, which took a year to develop, was developed with input from hundreds of African American studies experts across the country, including California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond; Tiffany Barber, assistant professor of African American art at UCLA; and educators at San Francisco State University, the first university to introduce a Black Studies department in the late 1960s.

AP courses, developed by the College Board, which also administers the SAT test, are rigorous university-level courses offered to students who can usually earn college credit after passing the exam. The Board offers 39 AP classes in subjects such as biology, chemistry, art history, English literature, music theory and computer science.

The African American major comes at a time when public school classes on American history, race, and sexual identity are mired in culture wars.

“This course is an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture,” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, in a press release. “No one is excluded from this course: the black artists and inventors whose achievements have come to light; the black women and men, including gay Americans, who were central to the civil rights movements; and people of faith from diverse backgrounds who have contributed to the fight against slavery and civil rights. Everyone will be seen.”

The interdisciplinary class will be available to around 500 schools in the 2023-24 school year and, depending on the framework, is designed similarly to a college African American Studies or related degree. Among other things, it examines key historical events and social movements that shape black experiences, the diversity of African societies and their global connections before slavery, and contributions of the African diaspora to literature and the arts.

The course has four units: “Origins of the African Diaspora”; “Liberty, Enslavement and Resistance”; “The Practice of Freedom”; and “Movements and Debates”. The course will also analyze how black migration has shaped cities, including Los Angeles. Students are required to conduct a research project on a study-related topic using secondary sources.

It was tested in 60 high schools across the country and made headlines when DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education banned it from being offered in the state on the grounds that it was historically incorrect and violated state law. On Tuesday, the governor announced plans to block state colleges from running programs on diversity, justice and inclusion and critical race theory.

Last year, DeSantis signed legislation restricting the way racism can be taught in schools and in the workplace. Florida prohibits directives that define people as necessarily oppressed or privileged because of their race.

When asked about Florida’s reaction to the course, Coleman said the completed framework wasn’t released until Wednesday morning, but he hopes educators across the state will review it with fresh eyes.

“We hope that with this fresh perspective, states, parents, and educators will find an unflinching perspective on the facts of African-American history and culture,” he said.

The California Department of Education faced controversy and intense scrutiny in developing its own framework for ethnic studies. In 2021, California became the nation’s first state to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation. But in other states, ethnic studies remain controversial. The course is designed to help students understand the past and present struggles and contributions of Black, Asian, Latino, Native American and other groups who have experienced racism and marginalization in America.

“I think it fits beautifully with the new ethnic study requirements in California,” Coleman said of the new AP class.

Tyrone Howard, a professor in UCLA’s School of Education, said Florida’s response reflects the times.

“You can’t separate this from a lot of things that are happening in education right now around the banning of books and proposed legislation against CRT,” he said, referring to critical race theory. “There is a real, real resistance in certain states to including content in our school curriculum that addresses some of the complexities and ugly episodes of racial discrimination in this country.”

The AP course will be available to all high schools in the 2024/25 school year.

“I applaud [the College Board] for the development of this course because it says that we will not concern ourselves with erasing the history of peoples, we will not avoid the complex history that is the legacy of slavery,” Howard said. It is “a huge step in the right direction”.

But he expects a backlash within California’s conservative enclaves — and that it could herald a politicized issue in the 2024 election.

“There will be states that will wholeheartedly support it and states that will wholeheartedly oppose it,” he said. “I think this is going to be massive because it’s part of the ongoing culture wars. There are people who feel that our children shouldn’t be taught these kinds of subjects. It’s this back and forth, this tug of war, and I think it’s going to get ugly.”

As a UCLA professor, Howard welcomes that the new AP course means more freshmen can come to universities with a better knowledge of the cultures and histories of others.

“What we do know is that when students have a solid knowledge and accurate history of experiences, achievements and obstacles that different groups have been through, stereotypes, prejudice and ultimately prejudice and hatred are broken down,” he said.

Barber, the UCLA assistant professor, said the course highlights the origins and evolution of Africa and its diaspora and provides “a unique and necessary worldview.”

“Like any AP offering, this course teaches critical thinking and writing skills as well as foundational knowledge and concepts that encompass Black Studies,” said Brandi Waters, the framework’s lead author. “As an art historian, I am pleased that the course includes art objects as primary sources that reflect the formal innovations of Black artists as well as their engagement with the world around them, because the art histories of the Black world are also the histories of Black intellectual thought.”

Waters added that students responded enthusiastically to the course.

“Most powerfully, this course allows students to see themselves as moving along the continuum of history,” said Waters, who is also senior director and program manager of African American studies for the College Board’s AP program. “You find yourself part of a new course that advances an established field at a challenging time, [and they] see themselves as part of this historical development.” College Board gives details of first AP African American studies class

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